By: Becky Garrison
Dr. Gregory V. Jones, the Evenstad Director of Wine Education and a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University, describes in a telephone interview the weather conditions leading up to and causing the current wildfires in Oregon and the western US.
“This unprecedented and likely a once in generation event resulted from a very large high-pressure area stretching from the desert SW to Alaska that brought extreme heat and very dry conditions to the western US. The dome of high pressure pushed the jet stream into northern Canada and forced cold air southward into the Rockies and the central US. This outflow of air brought strong winds from the east toward the west coast. These winds moved over numerous mountainous areas, warming, drying, and increasing in wind speed. The result was a dramatic drop in dew points, lowering relative humidity (to 8-20%) to desert-like conditions even to the coast. This same event brought cold air to the Rockies with temperatures dropping 60 degrees or more in one day and significant snow to the mountains and the front range.”
Prior to Labor Day, the few fires in Oregon were starting to be brought into control. However, Jones charts how with the onslaught of the strong down sloping winds and drying conditions, small fires had the potential to become large very quickly.
The result was catastrophic fire developments across the state with smoke covering much of the western part of Oregon and blanketing California. While most of the smoke in Oregon was at higher altitudes, over a few days the winds calmed, which helped the fire-fighting, but also allowed the smoke and ash to drop to lower altitudes in the Willamette Valley and elsewhere along the western valleys of Oregon and California and into Washington.
(As of this writing, the wildfires remain active with varying degrees of containment. An interactive map charting the wildfires is available here: https://projects.oregonlive.com/wildfires/map.)
Impact of Wildfire Smoke on Wine
In an email statement from Sally Murdoch, Communications Manager for the Oregon Wine Board (OWB), the OWB held an emergency session on September 21, 2020 where they approved tens of thousands of research dollars. These monies were in addition to what the Erath Family Foundation contributed for sampling and lab analytics at Oregon State University (OSU). This testing will start a file of data points on smoke in Oregon wine grapes and wines that will establish benchmarks from the vintage and the smoke effects on it. OSU will collect approximately 70 geographically-dispersed samples representing assorted varieties from vineyards across the state. After the grapes are tested, microfermentations from those samples will be analyzed to compile a total phenol profile for each wine sample. This is the first time fire or smoke drift pressure covered nearly every wine producing region in Oregon (effects were somewhat less problematic in the Gorge and The Rocks District).
While much has been written in the media as simply fire + smoke + grapes = smoke tainted wine, Jones asserts, “A smoky wine is not a fire-smoky wine and not all smoke produces smoke impacted wines. What is clear is that the historical use of the term ‘smoky’ with wine has been tied to red wines that have spent some time aging in oak barrels which in turn imparts an aromatic characteristic of ‘smokiness’ to the wine,” he adds.
Jones points to how fires have occurred in and near wine regions such as Australia, Portugal, California, Washington, and Oregon with numerous reports of smoke ‘tainted’ or ‘impacted’ wines. “Aspects of how far the smoke travels, the smoke’s composition, the level in the air that the smoke is at, the timing during the vintage, and how long it lasts all play a role in whether any smoke impact might occur to the wines. The additional complication is that grapes may not have any direct flavor or aroma of smoke, but through the fermentation of the grapes a chemical transformation creates less desirably characteristics to the wine. However, 1+1 does not always equal 2 here, so I urge caution in how this conveyed.”
Effects of Wildfire Smoke on the 2020 Harvest
Murdoch reports that some growers are experiencing smoke damage and are testing their fruit. “Smoke characteristics in wine this year are highly variable and site-specific.” Alex Fullerton, Winemaker for Fullerton Wines, agreed with this assessment in an email exchange. “Some vineyard sites have low to no smoke impact, and some were affected. We picked all our grapes, but made more rosé or white wine out of some of our red grapes that were most affected.”
When asked about the impact of the wildfires on the 2020 harvest, Morgen McLaughlin, Executive Director, Willamette Valley Wineries Association, offered this statement via email.
“As always, the story of the harvest is ever unfolding. Every year brings new opportunities and challenges. Every year the winemakers’ job is to navigate what Mother Nature brings, and impart knowledge gained from the past with new and innovative resources. Our industry is working closely with the scientific community and universities conducting research on the topic to continue to contribute to our shared understanding of this industry-wide issue and help to inform ongoing research on the topic of smoke-affected grapes. We are proud of the vintage diversity the Willamette Valley enjoys—every year is special, and with each challenge our talented winemakers rise to the occasion to make wines of place.”
Scott Zapotocky, Director of Winegrowing, Eola Springs & Chehalem Mountain Vineyards, Sage Ridge Vineyard, and Geodesy Wines, pointed in a phone call to some challenges they’re facing with this year’s harvest. “It’s making the harvest more difficult for sure given the Covid-19 safety requirements we’ve had to implement this year with working socially distanced and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. Then put on top of that the risk of the wildfires that may be around. It’s definitely added a level of stress.”
Adding to this uncertainty is the delay of lab testing analysis on this year’s grapes. According to Murdoch there’s a backlog of tests with 908 Oregon wineries eager to know what their wines’ smoke marker levels are. “The lab testing bottleneck is compounded by wildfire and smoke events in our neighboring states. We already knew there would be fewer wine grape tons harvested this vintage. September wildfires compounded that situation in some viticultural areas on the west coast.”
Along those lines, Zapotocky adds that growers face the risk of rejected fruit from the wineries. “Then the grower has to try and find either a new home or figure out if they’re going to be able to take an insurance claim on the grapes. The ability to file a claim is continent on if they have insurance and what level of insurance coverage they have. 2020 is a very complicated harvest.”
Marketing Challenges for Oregon’s 2020 Vintages
Dr. Damien Wilson, Professor at Sonoma State University, and inaugural Hamel Family Chair with the Wine Business Institute, stressed in a telephone interview the difficulty in predicting the future while still in the middle of an on-going challenge. In his estimation, smoke taint is only likely to become an issue if perceptions of its existence are coupled with press reports that it’s a problem. Most consumers lack awareness of it being an issue for wine, so “It’s essential to minimize references that contribute to a perception of any 2020 wine as ‘smokey’ or fire-affected.” Accordingly, practices aimed at preventing and/or minimizing smoke-taint in the cuvée will be essential.
In addition to his view that doomsday predictions on smoke-taint are likely to be overblown, Wilson has increasing evidence that winery visitors during this year are providing influential testimonials on the perceived safety and intimacy of their tasting room experiences. He recommends that small producers can leverage such publicity to help expand their online presence instead of being too heavily reliant on local buyers. He states that “…[those] producers who don’t have web pages or use social media have had to pivot quickly. The ones who connected via virtual platforms have consistently been more successful in recovering, maintaining or growing sales.”
In a statement released by the Oregon Wine Board, the leading variety in planted acreage and production in Oregon remains Pinot Noir which accounted for 59% of all planted acreage and 58% of wine grape production in 2019. Further analysis of these statistics reveals that statewide there are 41-42% of grape varieties who could take center stage as soon as next year. In this analysis, Wilson encourages winemakers to use their advantage that wine consumers are both comfortable and familiar with Oregon’s Pinot Noir. While consumers have begun to experiment with other varieties, during a crisis they tend to revert to those wines most familiar to them. Hence he encourages Oregon winemakers to remain cognizant of the value of their Pinot Noirs, and the potential to retain price premiums for those with established market awareness.
According to McLaughlin, there less Pinot Noir may be produced this year from the Willamette Valley, wineries may shift and adapt programs to reflect the best of the vintage. “Winemakers are privy to a wide array of resources locally, regionally and internationally. And, we have to remember the region is vast and diverse. What is happening in one area of the region isn’t necessarily occurring in others. Individual producers are all handling the situation differently to produce the best wine possible in 2020.”
Murdoch echoes this sentiment. “Although Pinot Noir is the leading grape in the state, our region continues to garner accolades for its Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling and Sparkling wines.” Since many wineries harvested grapes for their sparkling wines prior to the fires, these wines will not be affected. In her estimation, wineries will instead be focusing on different varieties. “Uou will see more white wines from this vintage, as the grapes were inside and often had less smoke exposure statewide.”
From a retail perspective Murdoch and Wilson do not foresee any major impact on consumer purchases, as long as messaging can be effectively managed. As Wilson observes, “While he industry will be talking about smoke taint and the memory of 2020, these issues are not likely to impact most wine consumers. There’s a premium attached to wine that comes out of Oregon. Consumers perceive these wines as being excellent quality and good value for the price.” Murdoch concurs, “Grape growers and winemakers are focused on building businesses over the long-term based on craftsmanship and value. Winemakers are aware of the reputational risk posed by releasing wines that might fall short of Oregon’s historically high-quality levels.”